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Words by Alex Rayner

Should we regard the American photographer William Eggleston as a great portraitist? The National Portrait Gallery’s Phillip Prodger makes the case via the gallery’s current exhibition

In 1980 Joe Strummer passed through Tennessee. A record-shop owner, excited by the Clash singer’s presence in his hometown, decided to put Strummer in touch with a local grandee of a similar regard.

“He said that he had to arrange a meeting between one of the greatest living musicians and one of the greatest living photographers,” explains Phillip Prodger, head of photographs at the National Portrait Gallery in London. The photographer was William Eggleston. Prodger says they both got on famously. “They had a lovely afternoon,” he says, “and Eggleston took several photographs.”

One of the images from that afternoon now hangs in the NPG as part of William Eggleston Portraits, a 100-photograph exhibition focusing on the people in the 76-year-old American photographer’s work.

Today, Eggleston is widely regarded as a pioneer of colour photography, pushing bright blues and reds into fine-art photo galleries which, up until the 1970s, valued austere black-and-white prints over polychromatic ones. Among connoisseurs, he’s admired for his compositional wizardry, able apparently to produce images with a high degree of complexity that nevertheless retain a deceptively casual, snapshot feel.

We should also, argues Prodger, regard Eggleston as a great portraitist – even if his pictures don’t necessarily conform to the accepted notion of what a fine portrait should look like.

Read more in Issue 3...